THE link between our enjoyment of the natural world and good health is not a novel concept.

The founder of America’s national parks, Scotsman John Muir, famously said: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Today, however, as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, the marvel that regular contact with nature is vital for our physical, mental and social health is appreciated more than ever. In fact, research by NatureScot during the first half of 2020 found 70% of people feel spending time outdoors in nature helped them de-stress, relax and unwind, with 56% agreeing it also improved their physical health.

A second survey later in the year demonstrated people had largely maintained these habits in engaging with physical activity in nature. It’s just one reason why NatureScot is putting such a strong emphasis on its Make Space For Nature campaign.

This provides practical ways to help everyone in Scotland care for nature in local outdoor spaces wherever they live, while simultaneously helping combat climate change. It’s proving a popular initiative and NatureScot Chief Executive Francesca Osowska points out major changes often begin with small, individual actions.

“One of the points we’re putting across is everybody can do their bit and take practical actions to improve nature,” she says. “It could be not mowing an area of your grass. I’ve a little bit of slate in my flower bed, which looks completely ridiculous but it’s actually a snail hotel!”

“So everybody can do their bit, whether they have a window box, a very small garden or a larger space in their community.”

NatureScot offers a range of online resources, including motivational ideas for nature-based activities for children and young people in urban green spaces. Francesca says:

“Young people want to know how they can engage in nature. When being at school wasn’t an option during Covid lockdown, we offered practical tools to help them. Parents needed a bit of inspiration to deal with home schooling – everything from what you can do on your own doorstep to making a bigger contribution.”

One way to make a bigger contribution through NatureScot is to become a citizen scientist. These volunteers take part in different surveys that span a range of areas, habitats and species. The data gathered is used by scientists to better understand how the environment is operating and where more positive action might be needed.

NatureScot believes such volunteering and engagement are major drivers behind conservation work in Scotland and integral to its own mission. “We’ve a massive role to play,” says Francesca, “but we need everybody to recognize the importance of nature, whether that’s on a micro or macro scale. Building that connection and providing the opportunities for individuals and communities to participate is the rationale behind Make Space For Nature.

“Volunteering really matters for people and nature. We set ourselves a target of working with more than 300 different communities this year, with a particular focus on those who have been most impacted by the pandemic. Getting that community involvement builds into national decision making and larger interventions.”

With 83% of Scotland’s population in towns and cities – and urban Scotland made up of 54% green space – there is massive potential to benefit both nature and people. That’s why NatureScot is increasingly investing in improving urban green spaces for people and nature through the Green Infrastructure Fund and supporting urban projects under the Biodiversity Challenge Fund.

Integral to this is their bid to reduce health inequalities in Scotland’s cities by partnering with health and nature organisations to promote a range of green health activity, including new types of social prescribing. NatureScot is also investing in nature-rich parks and other types of green and blue spaces in our urban areas.

“We use the term nature-based solutions,” says Francesca, “but that can be a range of different actions to help nature get a hold and be present in our towns and cities.”

The level of investment is substantial with the Green Infrastructure Fund totalling £15 million of European Regional Development Funding, which requires match funding to create a programme worth £40 million.

Such investment pays dividends. A report by NatureScot shows nature-based jobs make a significant contribution to the nation’s economy, amounting to at least 195,000 jobs or 7.5% of Scotland’s workforce in 2019. It also reveals major opportunities for nature-based jobs to help Scotland secure a green recovery from Covid-19 and support the transition towards a net-zero economy.

Francesca admits in many ways the pandemic has been a catalyst for change.

“I think one of the areas it’s made people and policymakers think about is the integration between society, economy and the environment – the idea that nature is integral to a well-being economy. It’s not just nice to have, the icing on the cake; it needs to be at the heart of our emergence from Covid as we continue to deal with the systemic issues of climate change and nature degradation.

“Investing in nature can support our economy and our wellbeing. It will also address the climate and nature crises we’re facing. It will make Scotland a better place.”

This article is brought to you in association with NatureScot.